By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
March 18, 2009
10:15 AM EDT

How dense did this guy think they were? The nerve, claiming that Bristol Motor Speedway had tickets available. Didn't he know that Bristol tickets were among the hardest to find in all of sports, fought over in divorces, passed down from one generation to the next? Wasn't he aware that the short track had been sold out for 53 consecutive events? Please.

In East Tennessee, there are a few certainties -- haze will hang over the Great Smoky Mountains, the Volunteers will run through the T on home Saturdays in Neyland Stadium, and Bristol will be a lock-solid full house. The idea of actually being able to call the ticket office and buy a seat over the phone? Pure fantasy. Everybody in the Tri-Cities knew that.

Welcome to Bristol's quandary. Indeed, because of the ongoing economic recession, the half-mile facility is selling tickets to the general public for the first time since Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased the track in 1996. Of course, that general public has understandably been a touch skeptical, given Bristol's deserved reputation for sellouts.

When the track first announced in late December that seats were available, locals and longtime race fans were left doing double-takes. Tickets? At Bristol? Can that be right? No wonder the toughest ticket in NASCAR suddenly felt like the toughest ticket to sell.

"We hadn't had any Cup product available for 13 years, so it was really hard to communicate the fact that we had tickets," said Jeff Byrd, the speedway's president and general manager. "You'd run into somebody and you'd say, 'Well, if you call, you can get a ticket.' They'd say, 'Nah, you're lying. I can't do that.' They didn't believe we had tickets. So we had to overcome that."

Even Bristol, as sure a thing as there is in all of NASCAR, has not been left untouched by a recession that's resulted in hundreds of race team employees being put out of work and thousands of race tickets going unsold. Bristol has sold out every Cup-level event it's hosted since Darrell Waltrip edged Bobby Allison to win the Busch 500 in August 1982. The track had only about 30,000 seats then. It has 160,000 now. So Byrd is doing something he's never done before -- advertising tickets for a Cup Series event, in the hopes of extending his facility's sellout streak to 54 races in Sunday's Food City 500.

"We're in uncharted territory," Byrd said. "We haven't had any tickets for sale two months before a Cup race in the 13 years I've been here. So we don't have any knowledge. We don't have any learning on it. All the other tracks can tell you where they are 30 days out, how many they're going to have walk up depending on the weather, and things like that. There's absolutely no data available to us. We didn't know whether we were going to sell 1,000 tickets a day or 20 tickets a day. We've just never done it before."

The fact that Bristol is having to hustle to sell tickets in the days preceding a race is another sobering reminder of his deep this recession is. Of course, it's far from alone -- Atlanta, Las Vegas, and California all had empty seats, while the Daytona 500 announced a grandstand sellout the night before the race.

This isn't solely a NASCAR issue, either; last week the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament, right up there with Bristol and the Masters in that elite club of hardest-to-find tickets, offered seats to the general public for the first time since 1966. But within NASCAR, Bristol is a benchmark, and unsold seats are startling even in a down economy. Even NASCAR president Mike Helton, a Bristol native, called Byrd on Monday to inquire about the situation.

"I understand there are a lot of people looking at Bristol," Byrd said. "I mean, 53 straight sellouts, there are a lot of people, rooting for us to get 54 and 55 in August, and who knows what 2010 holds. We're already working on that and trying to anticipate what the economy's going to do."

But what about the present? According to Byrd, the available seats are "100 percent" the result of corporate partners turning in tickets. The track's season-ticket renewal rate, he added, remains 92 percent, the highest in the sport. Still, you hear the occasional grumbles from folks unhappy with the racing produced by the new Cup car at Bristol, or the new concrete track surface that was put down in 2007.

Even though both races last year included their fair share of fireworks -- Kevin Harvick turning Tony Stewart in the spring, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards banging in the fall -- some people are left yearning for the days when drivers had to bump rivals out of the way to make a pass. But Byrd said this current situation isn't about fans turning their backs on the place.

"The tickets being made available are solely due to the economy," he said. "I understand some other people like the old race track better than the new race track, but I understand there are a lot of people who like the new race track better than the old race track. And that debate is over. I rarely get any e-mails or telephone calls. I understand that a lot of people liked that low-groove race track where the only way to pass was to knock somebody out of the way and you couldn't run side-by-side. But we had a lot of people e-mail us and say, 'We'd like to have the side-by-side racing that you used to have back when the track was asphalt.'

"Our cautions aren't down but one and a half per race. We're averaging 10 or 11 cautions. The race that everybody wants to reference is, they say it needs to be back like it was when [Dale] Earnhardt spun [Terry] Labonte on the last lap in 1999. Well, OK, there were [10] cautions that race. There are such high expectations for Bristol."

That goes for the grandstands as well as on the race track. A facility that for 13 years didn't have to spend a dime advertising Cup races now has a Knoxville, Tenn., advertising agency and is targeting specific markets in Ohio -- prime Bristol territory, thanks to convenient Interstate highways. The track has someone on staff who spreads the gospel of Bristol to race fans via MySpace and Facebook and Twitter.

They're allowing free admission on Friday with a specially-marked soda can, hosting a legends charity race on Saturday night, and have moved the annual Family Race Night form Kingsport to the speedway, where drivers will play games like Rock Band and Wii boxing. "Maybe we'll settle all those old Bristol disputes once and for all," Byrd said.

It all seems to be working. Barring anything unforeseen, Byrd said he hopes to be able to announce a sellout sometime in the coming days, so fans won't truck it down to Bristol in the hopes of buying tickets that are no longer available. But then again, that's what everyone's always come to expect from the place, anyway. Article